Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » The “Itch”

The “Itch”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 06, 2014

Fliesconstipationexecution … is there anything the Church magazines of the past haven’t addressed? Here’s a missionary report published in the Juvenile Instructor in 1886 detailing scabies, or “the itch.”

Curing the Itch in Twenty-Four Hours

By Charles Henry Wilcken

During the Franco-Prussian war a large body of French troops took refuge in Switzerland, to escape capture, and according to certain rules of war among civilized nations, they were compelled to remain inactive, having retreated to neutral ground. While there they infested the portion of the country where they were quartered, (the east Swiss) with the disease commonly known as “the itch” to such an extent, that hardly a family escaped the dreadful scourge.1

These French troops had just left when I received my appointment to take charge of the east Swiss conference, with headquarters at Zurich. As soon as I was settled I started on a five weeks’ trip, to visit the several branches of the conference. I had a delightful time, the scenery, the costume of the people, the animals, especially the cows, the mode of living and farming, everything was new and interesting to me. The Saints were glad to see me, as they always are, to see a new Elder just from Zion. Nothing was too good for me, and my time was spent in trying to do them good, in imparting to them such instructions as the spirit of the Lord gave unto me. I will here make a statement which has been made by hundreds of Elders, that there is no occupation so pleasant, so agreeable and so profitable as preaching the gospel, when one enjoys the spirit of his calling.

I returned to headquarters, feeling extremely well and thankful that my lot had been cast to labor in so delightful a district and among so good a people.

A few weeks after my return I began to be troubled with an itching between the fingers, on the wrist, elbow and knee joints, and various other places of my body. At first I paid but little attention to it, but the weather being warm, the itching increased, pimples became visible and little sores made their appearance, caused from an irresistible desire of the sharp ends of my fingers for something to do. “Lord bless the duke of Argyle,” escaped my lips many a time after a good rubbing on the door-post.2

Things went on in this manner for several weeks, when a good brother form this valley with an M.D. attached to his name made his appearance, assigned to labor with me as a traveling Elder. I at once made known to him, what I thought was the matter with me and flattered myself that I would now receive some relief, for by this time my condition was anything but comfortable. After a thorough examination the doctor looked at me and smiled, stating my fears were without foundation, and assigned as the cause of my itching, the too liberal use of the juice of the grape and of the mild drink made of barley. This was astonishing news to me. I had thought that I was indulging very sparingly, making some pretensions to keeping the Word of Wisdom. I now felt satisfied to let the doctor share my bed and board and after a few days rest we started out together on a similar trip, through the conference, to that which I had made.

We had a very pleasant time together; and after several weeks’ travel were met at Schaffhausen by the president of the mission. As bad luck would have it there was only one bed at our disposal; money we had none with which to hire lodgings for the night, consequently we were compelled to pile in together. In our joy at meeting I never thought of making my troubles known to the president until about eleven o’clock in the evening, after having laid in bed for about an hour talking. He slept in the middle. Did you ever see a cork fly out of a champagne bottle? Just about in the same manner he flew out of the bed, when I told him what ailed me, and walked the floor the remainder of the night.

On our arrival in Zurich it was thought best for me to go to a physician to ascertain what really was the matter. I hunted up the best one in town. He exhibited considerable amusement at my ignorance, pronounced my affliction a genuine case of itch, and recommended me to go to the public hospital, where I would be cured in twenty-four hours, and all my clothes disinfected at the same time. So on my return we all three made our way to the hospital and on examination were all found guilty of the same crime.

We were at once conducted into a bathroom, stripped of our clothing and put into a hot sulphur bath. A piece of sand soap was given us with which to open the pores and also rub off the heads of the pimples. The steward himself supervised and threatened several times to use the soap on us if we did not do it according to his instructions.

This operation completed, we were ushered into a very hot room, provided with a lot of bunks, furnished with a mattress each and several dirty-looking blankets. After partaking of a bowl of soup, with something very hot in it, we had to lie down on these bunks, while a waiter with a bucket of some yellow-looking ointment daubed us over from head to foot. In a moment I felt as though I was enveloped in fire. I bit my teeth in the blankets. Talking about seeing stars, why, it is no comparison. The blankets were then wrapped around us and fastened in such a manner that we could not have the use of our hands to wipe off the perspiration that was flowing in little streams from our foreheads into our eyes. Occasionally the same waiter would come with a dirty towel and act the good Samaritan.

At the expiration of six hours we were released from our very unpleasant situation for half an hour, then followed another bowl of soup, another daubing and another six hours’ sweat. This was repeated a third time making in all eighteen hours soaking – enough to cure almost anything. After this we were again given a bath, which felt more agreeable than the first one, our clothing in good shape was handed back to us and after paying five franks each (about 95 cents), we were pronounced clean and permitted to depart. It seemed as though about five skins were taken off from me; how many the other brethren lost I am not able to state.

My sympathies all this time were with the president of the mission who seemed to suffer severely and as I thought innocently. I tried to comfort him by telling him that he, from then on, could not say I had never given him anything.

As for the doctor I felt it served him right, a man professing to be an M.D. who didn’t know the itch when he saw it, ought to suffer and learn by experience.

Shortly after this the president and myself in traveling together caught the same dreadful disease a second time. What to do at first we did not know. The reader may imagine our feelings after what we had passed through. We were at the time of discovery traveling towards Weinfelden, our road was leading on the borders of a nice little grove of timber. We concluded to retire into the grove and ask the Lord to heal us. After selecting a spot, we knelt down, each one offering up a prayer for our deliverance from the disease. We felt very humble, I can assure you, and the prayers came from the bottom of our hearts. We felt confident that our Heavenly Father would hear and answer them. He did so, we were healed form that very hour and went on our way rejoicing, our hearts overflowing with gratitude to Him who is always ready and willing to bless and prosper His faithful servants.

  1. Wilcken, himself a Prussian, should probably not be trusted on this point. []
  2. George Douglas Campbell, the 8th Duke of Argyll (1823-1900), like Wilcken, took a special interest in cattle and reportedly caused his pastures to be equipped with scratching posts because cattle needed to rub against something rough to relieve themselves from itching. A Punch cartoonist drew a humorous picture of a Scotsman in a kilt rubbing his own back against such a scratching post, captioned “God bless the Duke of Argyll.” That saying went 19th century viral, with anybody scratching his back in such a way apt to repeat the old line. Or so sources say – I can’t vouch for whether this is legend or history. []


  1. Favorite throwaway line: “I had thought that I was indulging very sparingly, making some pretensions to keeping the Word of Wisdom.”

    Comment by Gary Bergera — March 6, 2014 @ 8:39 am

  2. If only I had known! I could have submitted for publication in the Ensign (or at least in Seito no Michi) my advice for cure of “the crud”–a malady equally severe and uncomfortable as the itch which Elder Wilcken describes. If the (ahem) details were considered inappropriate for a family magazine, I could have pointed the editors to this wonderful precedent.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 6, 2014 @ 8:43 am

  3. Both amusing and profound: the anecdote about “Lord bless the duke of Argyle,” after a “good rubbing” on the door-post in the same post as a faith healing. Cool.

    Comment by David Y. — March 6, 2014 @ 9:19 am

  4. That scratched my itch just right this Thursday morning. I also was quite amused by “I had thought that I was indulging very sparingly, making some pretensions to keeping the Word of Wisdom.” Now I must go to the Internets to learn all about scabies.

    Comment by Dovie — March 6, 2014 @ 10:11 am

  5. Magnificent! Funny and touching all in the same essay. (And an amusing first footnote!) I didn’t know CHW was a writer.

    I just looked at an article on scabies (2008); the author says that it “is frequently misdiagnosed and mistreated.” Too bad the first doctor initially diagnosed the pruritus as having an alcoholic origin; he could have saved himself and Brother W. and President Schoenfeld some grief.

    Comment by Amy T — March 6, 2014 @ 11:54 am

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